Now that it is fully understood that there is need for facilities for a wide variety of sports in Billings, action to address those needs is advancing rather rapidly by the South Billings Urban Renewal Association (SBURA). A consulting firm, Victus Advisors, reported a couple months ago that there is a demand in Billings for ice, for an aquatic center and for gym space. 

The City of Billings has an agreement to purchase a 10.1 acre property near Amend Park from property owner Bob Popelka, with the intent of using it to build all or some portion of a multi-faceted sports facility.

The City of Billings proposed budget for FY 2018-19 includes an expenditure of $4 million to purchase the property, using South Billings Boulevard Urban Renewal District (SBBURD) funds.

The budget also appropriates $1.25 million from the SBBURD to pay for a $150,000 feasibility study, and for planning and design of whatever the study concludes is doable on the property.

The property is probably not large enough to accommodate all three facilities, said Steve Zeier, coordinator for the SBURA steering committee — should all three facilities prove to be economically feasible. There are some worries about how costly an aquatic center might be, but to one degree or another, Zeier is confident that the SBURA is in a position that it can do something that will not only serve the SBBURD well, but the entire community.

At a recent public meeting, it was stated that the SBURA not only had the needed funding, but was probably the richest TIF district in the state.  The TIF, through the taxes generated on new taxable property values within its boundaries, will have an almost $6 million balance in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

It’s enough for the district to pursue a sizeable project, without increasing taxes, said Zeier, who envisions funding through some combination of TIF funds, perhaps a bond to be repaid by future TIF revenues, and private contributions or investment.

Zeier said that he has urged the SBURA Board of Directors to use the money to do some kind of improvement rather than just let the funds sit, since generating economic growth is what the funds are meant to do. The committee, headed by Carolyn Rukstad, is pretty excited about the idea of a sports facility, according to Zeier.

In line with that idea, a recommendation made by Victus Advisors to capture “low hanging fruit” associated with Amend Park is already included in the city’s proposed FY2018-19 year budget, through which SBURA must budget. A budget line item appropriates $1.5 million to install artificial turf and lights at Amend Park, which will allow use of some fields no matter the conditions imposed by weather, and to allow for night use.

Zeier said the process of purchasing the ten acres involves getting a couple of appraisals; he expects the deal to close sometime in June. Zeier, who has his own consulting firm, said that he has stepped away from that process in order to remove any perceived conflict of interest. The final decision rests in the hands of the City Council.

As soon as the budget is approved, SBURA, through the city administration will issue a request for proposal (RFP) from consulting firms to conduct the study that will result in a concept plan. “We have some great ideas,” said Zeier, “but we need some expertise to find out if they are realistic.” The consultants will report on the feasibility of each of the three proposed facilities. Zeier said he would expect that study to be concluded by the end of the year.

Part of the study will help identify potential private funding to help support the project. Zeier is particularly hopeful about what might come from Red Lion (formerly the Holiday Inn), which is owned by Inner Circle, a Florida –based company.

While the company had originally planned to rebuild the convention center, which has fallen into disuse after 40 some years serving the community — faced with something less than eager support from civic leaders, they have indicated a willingness to entertain other ideas that would support economic activity in that sector of the city.

“They said everything is on the table,” said Zeier. That might involve re-purposing, if useable, the 44,000 square foot convention building, as an aquatic center or an ice rink. The company has mentioned donating the building and/or the adjacent four acres to some kind of project, said Zeier.